USFR-FJR food boxes
The White House unveiled the "Farmers to Families Food Box Program," saying it's a program vital in helping save food that was going to waste and redirecting it to people who need it. ( USDA )

From farm to fork, agriculture was on center stage at the White House last week.

“I want to begin by expressing our profound gratitude to everyone here today and the farmers and producers across the country who have kept our nation fed and nourished, as we have battled the invisible enemy,” said President Donald Trump during a press conference at the White House.

During the event, the President unveiled the $19 billion relief package for agriculture, $16 billion of that money will go to farmers in the form of aid, the other $3 billion will be in food purchases.

“In normal times, roughly 40%of fresh vegetables and about 40% of beef grown and raised in the United States is distributed to restaurants and other commercial food establishments. But as you know, the virus has forced many of our nation's restaurants to temporarily close. And it's taken a major toll on our farmers and growers,” added the President.

While the President pressed on the fact most of agriculture is impacted by the pandemic, he said the aid from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) will be provided to specific sectors of agriculture.

“We'll be providing billions of dollars for corn, cotton, soybean and specialty crop farmers, cattle ranchers, just about every category,” he said.

While the President said most of agriculture will see some financial relief, not every facet of farming and agriculture will receive aid. Farm Journal Washington correspondent Jim Wiesemeyer points out there are several commodities that were left out.

“They listed sheep more than 2 years old, eggs, layers, soft red winter wheat, flax, rye, peanuts, feed barley extra-long staple cotton, alfalfa, forage crops, hemp and tobacco,” said Wiesemeyer. “I don't think they're going to be very happy on this one.”

Wiesemeyer said while some sectors aren’t included in CFAP, overall, he thinks the direct payments to producers will be beneficial.

“No farmer is going to be made whole by any of this,” said Wiesemeyer. “It's not a bailout. With this [raised] payment cap, that'll be good news for the efficient, larger producers, because absent that change, CFAP would not have been the force that this change accounts for. A lot more money will come to a lot more producers now.”

The aid is coming to sectors that desperately need assistance; sectors like dairy.

“I think it helps a lot,” Marin Bozic, an economist for the University of Minnesota told Farm Journal’s MILK editor Anna-Lisa Laca. “I don't think this is going to be a trivial amount. I think that when you combine this program with their margin coverage and their revenue protection. I think that we will have averted the disaster that we were we were staring at in the abyss on April 15.”

Bozik says in the middle of April, cheese was down to $1 per pound and the entire industry was looking dire. Bozik’s sentiment is something leaders within the dairy industry share.

“Our world was upside down in April,” says Michael Dykes, President and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

When U.S. Farm Report visited with Dyes in April, dairy producers were dumping milk, and the devastation on farms and with processors was mounting.

“During that time, we wanted to see the government buy food, not to be stored as a long-term market distortion angle to it, but we wanted to see the government work with nonprofits, like the food banks, to purchase quality food from the farm through the processor and give it to those that need it.”

Dykes says that idea in April has now blossomed into a robust program.

“This Department of Agriculture has been very creative,” he says. “They've been very proactive with new approaches to things.”

A new approach with the Food Box program, a program also highlighted at the White House last week. The White House saying the program is vital in helping save food that was going to waste and redirecting it to people who need it. 

“Thinking about that supply chain and ensuring with $3 billion that those who are vulnerable, that those who are need get access to boxes like these 20 to 25 pounds of meat, milk, all forms of dairy,” said Ivanka Trump, senior advisor to the President. “And of course, great fresh produce is incredibly virtuous. It's a great cycle that helps the small distributors. It helps us small farmers who were prioritized in in the bids. And of course, it helps those in need.”

Dykes says with 36 million Americans unemployed, lines are growing at food banks, and instead of farmers dumping milk, the programs get dairy from the farm to those who are looking for nutritious food for their families. 

“We are now using that chain, that channel to take food through the chain and get it out to non-profits,” says Dykes. “I want to stress nonprofits, food banks, plus things like Salvation Army, church groups, anything with a tax exempt body. It is a novel concept. It's never been done before.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue helped deliver the first food boxes in mid-May and spoke about that experience during the White House press conference.

“You can see this is high quality food here that's being distributed all across the country to our food banks and really a lifeline for them, as well,” he said. “The food supply chain that begins with these producers representing farmers and ranchers all across the country, ending up on families’ tables that need this food is a real noble profession.

Dykes says dairy is a big component of the food boxes, which helps keeps all stops of the dairy supply chain employed.

“It's a win-win-win,” said Dykes. “It's a win for those who are unemployed. It's a win for the dairy processor, and it's a win for the dairy producer.”

A win for dairy producers, as added demand drove up milk prices for farmers.

“The way to the food box program was designed, the fact that they accelerated it. The fact that they did not allow enough time for processors to incorporate those new sales into their production plan that they basically had to scramble to get it churning almost instantaneously, that created a rally that lifted the prices now in the last few weeks.”

It’s not just dairy included in the food boxes, but also fresh produce. Potato rowers like David Hickman of Virginia say that will help ease some of the growing supplies many are facing, especially with the loss of restaurant demand.

“This program is going to help tremendously with the movement of potatoes this summer for us,” said Hickman of Dublin Farms in Horntown, Va. “We have six distributors who are our current customers that are doing the food box program. So, our potatoes will be in some of these food boxes. We've submitted bids for five pound bags to go directly to the food banks.”

The program is being met with praise from dairy and other groups, but not everyone is happy. Some fresh produce providers say the food box left the smaller fresh produce growers out.  

“I think, honestly, the people that really needed to apply to be a part of this, think there was enough to go around for all of them that checked off all the boxes,” said Brent Erenwert, CEO of Brothers Produce in Houston, Texas. “If you really go through this packet and you fill out the packets like we were understanding, like we should have been, every company should have been able to get a piece of this.”

In an interview with The Packer’s editor Tom Karst, Erenwert said the awards process for the program broke the middle part of the food chain.

“When you break the middle, which is where this was awarded, you can't connect the other two because a lot of the awards did not have the logistics,” he said.

As food boxes make their way to food banks and other non-profit groups across the country, Dykes says dairy is seeing a comeback in demand.

“Restaurants are opening,” he said. “The food distributors who, again, if you think about that food channel depleted because they weren't supplying anybody, they are now buying. They're now getting the supply chain restocked and restaurants are coming on board, carryout is picking up and they are seeing an increase in business. Orders are coming in.”

Finally, a bright spot, as the food chain works to keep Americans fed.

“Farmers and ranchers feed America,” said Ivanka Trump during the White House press conference. “That's never been more true than we've all realized over the course of the last several months.”

Keeping the country fed as agriculture and food production continues proves to be the backbone of America.

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